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Estates of Deceased Persons (Forfeiture Rule and Law of Succession) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:07 am on 4th March 2011.

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Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 10:07 am, 4th March 2011

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr Knight on his success in steering his Bill to Third Reading without amendment, and clearly with considerable support from all parts of the House. I hope this success continues.

The Bill, as has been said, is a narrow but worthwhile piece of technical law reform that will make the law fairer. It overcomes the problem that, where an inheritance has been disclaimed or forfeited, people claiming through the person who disclaimed or whose inheritance was forfeited cannot inherit. The Bill allows them to do so by introducing a deemed predecease rule. It achieves a similar outcome where a person loses a benefit on intestacy by dying a single parent under the age of 18. In this case the Bill allows his or her children living, or at least conceived, at the death of the intestate to inherit the benefit that he or she, their minor parent, would have received, had he or she lived long enough.

These changes will bring the law of succession more into line with the general policy that, in the absence of a clear intention in a will, descendants should be preferred over remoter relatives. The Bill implements, with modifications, recommendations of the Law Commission. I am grateful to the commission for its work in developing the reforms and for its continuing support for the Bill.

Let me consider the Bill in a little more detail. Clause 1 applies where a person dies intestate or partially intestate. In these circumstances, after the deceased person’s debts have been paid, his or her estate or, in cases of partial intestacy, such part of it as is not distributed by the will, is passed by the personal representatives to the persons entitled to inherit under the intestacy rules. These rules, which have been amended from time to time, were introduced by the Administration of Estates Act 1925. They are intended to give effect to what it is thought the deceased person would have specified in his or her will had he or she made one. This is clearly a very general aspiration, as no one can know what the deceased person would have specified had he or she made a will, but we can be reasonably confident that closer relations are generally more likely to be left something than more distant ones and that direct descendants are likely to be preferred over collateral descendants.

Therefore, the general policy on intestacy is that, once the interest of any spouse or civil partner has been satisfied, the property of the deceased should pass to closer blood relatives before more distant ones. The children of the deceased, for example, should be preferred to siblings of the deceased. This general policy is overridden if a person is convicted of the unlawful killing of another, or of aiding, abetting or counselling another to do so. In such cases, he or she is automatically disqualified from inheriting from the victim under the forfeiture rules. This is a rule of public policy that states that a person cannot inherit property from someone whom he or she has unlawfully killed. It applies in murder and manslaughter cases. However, persons convicted of lesser offences than murder may be permitted relief to inherit the victim’s property by the court under the Forfeiture Act 1982.

Clause 1 is necessary because in 2000 the Court of Appeal decided in re DWS deceased that where a person forfeits an inheritance on intestacy because he or she has killed the person from whom he or she would have inherited, his or her children will also be disinherited. This is because the relevant intestacy rules provide that a grandchild can inherit from a grandparent only if his or her parent—the grandparent’s child—has already died. In that case, the parent had not died but had forfeited his inheritance by murdering his parents. The decision in re DWS deceased is inconsistent with the general policy underlying the law of intestacy. It is unfair that the grandchild should be disinherited in these circumstances. The same situation arises in relation to disclaimer, which is the legal term used to describe the situation where a beneficiary under a will or intestacy rejects an inheritance. The children of a person who disclaims an inheritance on intestacy cannot inherit through him or her because he or she is still alive.

Subsections (1) and (2) of clause 1 solve these problems by introducing a deemed predeceased rule into the intestacy rules. The rule is set out in new section 46A. The effect of the new section is that where a person forfeits an inheritance because he or she is convicted of murder, for example, he or she is deemed, for the purposes of the intestacy rules only, to have died before the victim. Similarly, new section 46A deems the person who disclaims an inheritance to have died before the intestate. The legal device of deeming a person to be dead, which is set out in new section 46A, enables the children of the person who has forfeited or disclaimed the inheritance to inherit their intestate grandparent’s property in accordance with the intestacy rules.

Before moving on to the remainder of clause 1, I will comment on subsections (3) and (4) of new section 46A. These make it clear that the deemed predeceased rule is not intended to prevent the offender from inheriting where the court, in the exercise of the discretion it is given by the Forfeiture Act 1982, decides that an inheritance is not to be forfeit. Section 2 of the 1982 Act, to which subsection (3) of new section 46A refers, gives the court the power to modify the effect of the forfeiture rule where the offender has not been convicted of murder, for example by allowing the killer to inherit all or part of the estate.